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Nature, nurture or nasty?

Stockholm University research has shown that dogs are getting "dumber". Researchers found that current pedigree dogs are "disinterested, shy and less responsive to commands than their ancestors." They also found that show-quality and "handbag" dogs are the most likely to be affected by this lower intelligence.

Meanwhile, the University of West Virginia in Morgantown was theorizing that viscous dogs might "learn" their viciousness from their owners. In a study they carried out, they found that owners of breeds classed by the American Kennel Club as likely to cause harm to humans were more likely to have committed crimes such as vandalism, illegal drug use and fighting.

So what is the link between the two? The fact that not only our breeding of dogs, but our behaviour effects dogs. This makes sense to me, and I think goes some way towards explaining that perceived drop in intelligence in the Stockholm study. If all that is required of a dog is to look good, he is not being allowed to exercise his mind or body fully. While show dogs do have to master fairly undemanding behaviours, they are not physically or mentally tested in doing so.

Similarly with "handbag" dogs - if their life consists of being carried around and dressed in ridiculous outfits, they are not given natural outlets to develop their intelligence, to interact with people and dogs, or to do pretty much anything.

How animals live does has a powerful effect on their characters. We had two rabbits who were not quite house rabbits, but who had the run of the laundry. We walked through the room several times a day, as well as spending time in there with the rabbits. They had toys on the floor, and we hid food around the area. They were very friendly, and would run up to us, choosing to interact with us. When we gave the rabbits a piece of carrot each, one rabbit would scurry off and hide her piece, then come back and steal the other's. She was very cheeky, and definitely had a personality of her own.

Later, we introduced a rabbit who was incredibly destructive, and the rabbits had to be confined to their hutch and their outdoor run, until we built them an shed of their own. In that period the rabbit's personalities became less pronounced, they became less friendly towards us, and simply did not have the space or opportunity to express themselves. If that can happen to rabbits, surely it can happen to dogs.

Our dogs also pick up on our mood and behaviour too. I was once walking with Buddy down an alleyway, when I noticed two young men at the other end. When they saw me, they stood and walked to the other end, and looked up and down the street warily. I suspected they were checking out if anyone else was around, and I was very frightened that they might be planning to steal my handbag or attack me in some way.

I called quietly to Buddy, and said to him, "Buddy, see them - nasty men!" Buddy seemed confused, and eyed them in the distance. I repeated, "Nasty men!" several times, and he was obviously alerted to something odd about these two. Being a Labrador, Buddy routinely sashays up to virtually everyone he meets, in search of food, fuss, or hopefully both. On this occasion though, he picked up on my concern, He kept his tail straight out behind him, without a hint of a wag, and eyed the two young men warily.

I will never know if my suspicions were correct, or if Buddy's attitude saved me that day, but I pushed through the narrow space between the two men, and we walked on unmolested. I hated doing it, but I was on my way to pick up my daughter from school, and there was no time to detour. Whatever the truth of that day, I know that my attitude to the men caused Buddy's attitude to them. My suspicious behaviour led to his. Perhaps if a dog is exposed to continuous anti-social or aggressive behaviour, he picks up on it.

So to be good dog owners - of show dogs or pet dogs - we need to give them plenty of opportunities to exercise body and brain, and encourage them to live a natural life, not confine them to a carrier. We also need to behave ourselves - and for some of us that might be the biggest challenge of the lot!

Take care,

Julie x

P. S. The rabbits loved their large purpose built shed, along with their run and lived out their days happily.

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